If I were stranded on a desert island with a single style of beer, I’d want it to be the saison. (If stuck on an iceberg, I might request a stout or porter—but this is a desert island, remember.) Sure, Germany has its maibocks and hefeweizens for the spring and summer—but I look to the Belgians for my warm weather go-to: a highly carbonated, slightly spicy, slightly fruity, earthy, yeasty, bittersweet brew that’s easily distinguishable, but not as easy to describe.
Originating in the French-speaking region of Belgium, saison-style farmhouse ales were traditionally brewed during the cooler, quieter months. With average ABV of 3.5 percent, seasonal farmers (les saisonniers) could drink them steadily throughout the summer without getting wasted enough to plow into a tree. These days, though most international saisons are still unfiltered and bottle conditioned, they are brewed at significantly higher ABV, between 4 percent and 7 percent (not so good for farmers; great for you and me).
Not long ago the saison was nearly an endangered species, but the style has been making a strong comeback since the 1980s. For its revival, we can at least partially thank the Champagne of saisons, Saison Dupont, which has undeniably inspired the beer’s modern form.
Can contending Belgian-style farmhouse ales from the US, Italy or New Zealand (!), even compete with the original? Grab your bottles and find out with me in this installment of the Beer Olympics.
Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont; Belgium: With a wonderfully cloudy, pale orange hue and a decent amount of head, the classic Saison Dupont sets the bar for the style. It looks so balanced that I’m tempted to ask it to fix my checkbook.
Goose Island Sofie; United States: Sofie appears to be the palest of the bunch, characterized by a daisy-yellow hue with thin, delicate bubbles. Perhaps the human namesake of this beer was a ballerina.
Birra Del Borgo Duchessa; Italy: Our second “female” entrant, Duchessa pours a beautiful burnt amber. Perhaps a little deeper, crisper and clearer than your typical saison, but the beer looks so inviting, I’m considering bathing in it later.
8 Wired Saison Sauvin; New Zealand: A close runner-up to the Duchessa in depth of hue, the Saison Sauvin features a nice, yeasty head. This beer may be made by Kiwis, but it looks just like a Belgian!
POINT: Birra Del Borgo Duchessa
Saison Dupont: What does the definitive funky farmhouse yeast smell like? Kind of like an orange-banana-clove smoothie that was left out at a weeklong George Clinton and Parliament show. (The intoxicating result is way better than it sounds.)
Sofie: Sofie’s funk is a bit tamer, though punctuated by notes of pepper, sour vinegar and barnyard wood. My wife says it smells like cat piss—but if that were the case, I’d be burying my nose in kitty’s litter box every morning.
Duchessa: Sweeter and certainly milder than most, Duchessa has the nuttiest, maltiest nose of any saison I know of. But the thick fragrance fades away quickly…much like my interest in this beer.
Saison Sauvin: New Zealand’s competitor boasts the freshest, cleanest nose of all, reminiscent of white wine: zesty, with lots of fruit and a touch of pepper. If a traditional saison is defined by funky mustiness, this would miss the mark—but its scent is too refreshing not to love.
POINT: 8 Wired Saison Sauvin
Saison Dupont: Thin to medium bodied with a lively carbonation, Dupont brings a party to the mouth. But it’s also slightly creamy, balancing itself with a self-awareness like that of the houseguest who knows just how drunk to get before he’ll start to tick everyone off.
Sofie: Sofie makes up for its incredibly thin body with a high carbonation and peppy crispness unlike any other saison I’ve tried. She makes the lively Dupont seem like it’s passed out on the couch. Slow down there, Sofie!
Duchessa: After all the excitement, I’m slightly disappointed by Duchessa’s fairly low carbonation. Do they not like to party in Italy?
Saison Sauvin: Medium bodied, with plenty of spritzy carbonation that soon makes way for creaminess if held longer in the mouth. It’s nice, for sure, but still can’t compare with the gold standard.
POINT: Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
Saison Dupont: Crisp and refreshing, slightly grassy. Those classic Belgian saison yeasts come through big-time, giving the beer a funky flavor that tastes just like it smells. The Brasserie nails it once again!
Sofie: Another brew that mirrors its aroma in flavor: acidic, citrusy and a pronounced tartness. I’m a man who loves sour beer, but we’re tasting saisons here, Sofie, not lambics. Save the extra tang for another day, lady!
Duchessa: Offers a light and smooth malty-banana start, but flattens out disappointingly midpalate. I admit I could pound this easy-drinker all day while laboring in the hot summer sun, but I like to sip my beer with dinner, rather than while milking goats.
Saison Sauvin: Quite a boozy presence up front (at 7 percent, it has the highest ABV of the beers tasted), eventually moving into funky, hoppy flavors, capped by the bitter taste of raw lemon peel. Yowsas, that’s one dryyyyyy saison…
POINT: Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
Saison Dupont: For everything I love about the Saison Dupont, its unremarkable finish isn’t its strongest suit. I wish I could linger longer on that midpalate flavor, instead… (How long can one keep beer in one’s mouth before it gets weird?)
Sofie: Look no further for an acidic, spicy twang to wake you up! But it’s one hell of a clean, bright finish, which invites another glass. This is where Sofie’s sour qualities really shine.
Duchessa: Disappointingly, Duchessa ends without much of a bang. Which reminds me of that famous Langston Hughes poem that begins: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a saison in the sun?”
Saison Sauvin: Ho…ly…crap. A minute after I’ve gulped this puppy down, the dry, bitter finish is still going strong! This is extreme enough to shock judges of the “Back Palate Freestyle” at the X Games.
POINT: Goose Island Sofie
In what was easily the fiercest competition the Beer Olympics has seen to date, each of our contestants offered an entirely different set of strengths for all types of beer fans. Nearly by default, I give this competition to Saison Dupont. But I recommend keeping all four of these killer beers on hand to combat whatever level of farming or housework you may have to overcome at any hour. At 7 percent, I recommend the Sauvin for braving anything that requires extra courage, such as toilet cleaning.
Of course, I’m just one man with one opinion. If you’ve been drinking along with me (and if not, what are you doing with your life?), leave your comments below and let us know which beer you’ve crowned Olympic Saison Champion of the world!